Smuggling activities and the Moses Greene house

One of the most interesting houses in the Conimicut Village is the Moses Greene House at 11 Economy Avenue. This house has been connected to the Triangular Trade, smuggling, and the Slave Trade during the period when the house was owned by members of the Lippitt and Greene families. Like the Captain Peter Greene house at 1124 West Shore Road, this house was built, ca. 1750. Both houses are 2 ½ story, 5-bay, center chimney houses and are so similar that it is believed they were the work of the same builder.

The history of the two houses differs, however, as the Moses Greene House is rich in the seafaring lore of Warwick. While the primary interest in the colony during the 18th century remained in agriculture, Warwick’s proximity to the bay saw a number of its leading families turning to the sea for their livelihood.

An easier lifestyle
Life in Conimicut in the 18th century differed from the very early period when there was great confusion and bitterness. Now the settlers there lived in greater accord with their neighbors in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. . After the “Glorious” or “Bloodless Revolution,” which deposed James II and placed William and Mary on the throne, the Toleration Act for Religion and an English Bill of Rights for politics brought about some harmony in Warwick and Rhode Island . This greatly reduced the religious animosity that once made the Gortonists objects of the wrath of other colonies and helped promote the concepts of political freedom that Warwick advocated from its early days.

During this period, Warwick increased her agricultural products by the settling of the Cowesett division, the Wecochaconet Farms and the Natick Lands. Much of the produce from these farms, as well as those from Conimicut, were shipped to Newport and Providence from ports along Warwick’s shore and the colony became a significant part of the ever-growing sea trade.

Major John Greene
Much of the prosperity that came to the colony was due to the leadership of Major John Greene, Jr., an ancestor of the Moses Greene, who lived in the house at Mill Cove for a number of years. Major John Greene was annually elected Deputy Governor from 1690 to 1700, and served during the terms of Governors John Easton, Caleb Carr and Samuel Cranston. Major Greene, as Deputy Governor, received no salary but he was exempted from paying taxes, thus encouraging him to acquire large tracts of land in the colony.
During his tenure in that office, the town of Warwick was nearly destroyed by a smallpox epidemic in 1690-91, witnessed the introduction of paper money as bills of credit, and welcomed the beginnings of a post office. Major John Greene journeyed to Boston in 1692 to inquire about establishing a post office and helped bring about the development of a Post Road, which ran from Boston to Pawtuxet and Apponaug and eventually to Virginia.

The Privateers
Major Greene is also regarded as a champion for Rhode Island rights and especially as the man who introduced Rhode Island to the controversial practice of using privateers. As England was at war for over 30 years in the 1690-1763 period, there was a demand that merchant ships arm themselves to make war on the mother country's enemies. As an incentive, ships receiving privateer commissions were allowed to keep a large portion of the spoils of war. Governor John Easton, fearing that pirates would gain from this practice, hesitated to grant commissions. Deputy Governor Greene had no such reservations and granted several commissions, thereby paving the way for a dramatic increase in Rhode Island's commerce. A number of Greene family men did take to the sea and engaged in the wars of the mother colony. One, Godfrey Greene, who lived near Mill Cove had been taken prisoner by the French in the French and Indian War. He later served in the Revolutionary War and was captured by the British. Privateering, as one can imagine, brought high profits but was a very precarious profession. .

The Triangular Trade
The role played by privateers, with all the excitement, however, was only one of the segments of the lucrative maritime enterprises that were to aid in Warwick's growth as a seaport town.

The key to the maritime prosperity was the trade with the West Indies, which brought sugar and molasses into the colony. Through shrewd dealings, enough profit was made by selling cheese, fish, lumber, horses and livestock in order to gather a large enough cargo to trade with the Southern colonies and with the West Indies for sugar and molasses. This was distilled into rum, a commodity accepted nearly everywhere, and by no means confined to the African trade. The distilling of rum reached a high point in the middle years of the eighteenth century. While Newport, with its 22 distilleries and Providence with 12, led the production of rum in the colonies, there were also a number of small distilleries all along Warwick’s shore. At its height, many Rhode Island distilleries could produce rum for about 20 cents per gallon. Approximately 200 gallons or $40 worth of rum could purchase a slave in Africa which, in mid-century, often could be sold for nearly $400 in Cuba or in the Carolinas.

In 1712, many of the restrictions placed upon the American colonies in regard to the slave trade were removed. When the Treaty of Utrecht, 1713, which concluded Queen Anne's War, gave England the right to furnish Spanish America with 144,000 slaves over a 30 year period, the colonies were now encouraged to participate in this lucrative trade.

Maritime prosperity
Warwick's inclination for the sea became obvious quite early. Because of low prices for agricultural products and the difficulty of acquiring and clearing land young men found it easy to be lured from their farms to seek adventure and high profits. At first the Warwick vessels were engaged in the coastal trade, then later as privateersmen and a few as slavers. . Historians such as Samuel Greene Arnold have credited Rhode Islanders' vessels with "superior sailing qualities." Arnold goes on to say, "very few of the enemy's privateers, in a gale of wind, will run or outsail one of our loaded vessels." According to Arnold, eighty-four vessels of all sizes were built in the colony and were manned by native seamen. A number of these ships were built in the shipyards at Apponaug and Pawtuxet and some of them came to Mill Cove, which was much deeper then.

The Moses Greene house, spanning a period of over 250 years of Warwick’s history is one of the City’s excellent visual reminders of Warwick’s heritage. Ernest L. Lockwood, in his Episodes in Warwick History, says of this house, “Tradition informs us that the old house was the scene of smuggling activities prior to the Revolution.
Photo from Lockwood, 1937

Warwick, as well as Rhode Island's other seacoast towns, prospered and became more dependent upon the sea for her prosperity. In 1733, when the British passed the Molasses Act in an attempt to gain a share in the profits being made by the colonists, Rhode Islanders resorted to smuggling. Mill Cove was well suited for this activity as small schooners could enter the cove and the illegal goods could be taken to the house at the cove to be stored and distributed. The belief is that Rhode Island ships, after eluding British patrol ships around Beavertail Point in Jamestown, and to avoid customs duties at Newport and Providence, came into Mill Cove to unload their contraband goods. From there, in smaller boats and under cover of darkness the goods could be sent to Providence or Newport. Later, when there were attempts to curtail the slave trade, Warwick, Newport and Providence resorted to the smuggling of humans as well. The discovery of chains in the cellar of the Moses Greene House has led to the belief that slaves were kept there at different periods.

Salutary Neglect
Almost from the beginning of the century, Rhode Island won a reputation for contrariness as well as for illegal trading and piracy. England's preoccupation with European wars had a positive effect on Warwick's prosperity as it was impossible for the mother country to strictly administer the restrictive trade laws or to closely supervise the granting of privileges to privateers. This era in the eighteenth century is often called the "Period of Salutary Neglect," for as England "neglected" her colonies, they prospered, especially in the West Indian trade and in the spoils brought in by the privateers.

Nearly all of Warwick's inhabitants benefited from the increased trade. Those directly concerned with ships and supplies were obvious beneficiaries. In addition, farmers received higher prices, and artisans found a market for their talents as Warwick began supplying the major ports of Newport and Providence. Goods were shipped via a ferry that ran between Warwick Neck and the northern end of Prudence Island and from there to Newport. By 1742, Warwick Neck was a vital link in the postal and commercial trade as a ferry from Providence stopped there and then sailed on to the islands. After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, England felt she had the resources to stop the smuggling and the pressure against the colonists was increased. The trade in rum, made from molasses, was so lucrative that Warwick ship captains and owners, like most of the others in New England, found it more profitable to smuggle than to comply with the law. The many coves and inlets in Warwick, especially those around Warwick Cove, Mill Pond Cove and Pawtuxet, continued to smuggle despite the increased risk. As the British increased their patrols, the gap between the mother country and the colonies grew greater and eventually resulted in a struggle for independence. Rhode Islanders from Conimicut took part in this fight for freedom.

In the decade following the Revolutionary War, there was a growing sentiment against the slave trade. In 1787, it became illegal for Rhode Islanders to engage in this “nefarious” trade. Once again there was smuggling in Mill Cove and the Moses Greene house may have played a role in the trade.

The Farm & Grist Mill

The Moses Greene House today has been restored to its 1750 persona. Notice the 19th century porch has been removed.
Photo Don D’Amato 2004

It should be noted however, that while smuggling was at times very profitable, it was not the main occupation of the people who lived in the house. Moses Greene, whose name is most closely associated with the house, was primarily engaged in agriculture and was actually born in 1815, after the “glory days” of smuggling. He was the only son of Amos and Mary Lippitt Greene. His grandfather was Moses Lippitt, known as “Moses Lippitt of the Mill.” He was called that, as he owned the Grist Mill built by Thomas Stafford in the early days of the colony. It was the first and only mill in Warwick for a time, and his ancestors ground corn for the entire town of Warwick. Moses Lippitt continued to run the mill, farm the land and most likely engaged in smuggling.
During much of its existence under the ownership of Moses Greene and those who followed him, the house was the center of a large farm and the prosperity of the farm was evident during the 19th century. One indication is that in 1870, a large ell and veranda were added to the house. In the 1880s, a Victorian living room, hall and staircase were added. In time, other changes occurred, such as blocking off the six fireplaces and remodeling sections of the building.

In the late 1980s, the house was restored as close to its 1750 style as possible by Mrs. Cindy Laboissonniere. Part of the charm of the 10 room house lies in its structure which was framed with massive beams that were all cut and beveled by hand. The well preserved and restored clapboards clearly show the rose-head nails of the Colonial Period. In addition there are paneled mantelpieces, fine bolection mouldings, and a beehive oven. There is also an area adjacent to the massive center chimney that was used as a “smoke house” to cure meats. In the cellar, there is a large “summer beam” or central support that may very well have been taken from a house built on the site in 1718.